One of the less fun parts about the nine-game conference schedule is playing five Big Ten road games every other year. 2017 is one of those seasons for Penn State, so James Franklin’s crew will be headed west already for the second time this season. This time, the opponent will be Northwestern, a program that the Lions lost to on a last-minute field goal during their last meeting two years ago.
Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson started that game for the Wildcats, and they’ll do so again on Saturday. Similarly, Penn State got touchdowns from Saquon Barkley and DaeSean Hamilton, two players who should play starring roles again in the 2017 matchup. However, instead of battling for a New Year’s Day bowl appearance, Penn State has national title aspirations on the line. A few weeks ago, Northwestern didn’t seem like much of an obstacle to those hopes, but that was when the Wildcats were barely sneaking by Nevada and getting crushed by Duke.
Since then, Pat Fitzgerald’s team got back on track with a squash of Bowling Green followed by a loss at Wisconsin in which it hung around for the first three quarters thanks to some costly turnovers by the home team. With so much experience at quarterback and tailback for the Wildcats, and with Penn State’s offense showing inconsistencies during Big Ten play, a Northwestern upset doesn’t seem so crazy. To get deeper inside the matchup, we spoke to Tristan Jung of SB Nation’s Northwestern blog, Inside NU. Thanks to Tristan for helping us out with his Wildcats knowledge.
Black Shoe Diaries: Clayton Thorson completed just 38 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions in a brutal loss to Duke in Week 2. However, in his other three games combined, the Northwestern quarterback has completed 71 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Was that Duke game a fluke? Has Thorson improved as a quarterback overall so far?
Inside NU: Thorson has not been quite as sharp as 2016. Although he had great games against Nevada and Bowling Green, it's still just Nevada and Bowling Green. Against good defenses, Thorson has struggled to adjust to a lack of good protection and has been inaccurate. He struggled with accuracy early in his career, but improved in the second half of 2016 and was set to continue that improvement in 2017. Instead, he's regressed, and the offense has looked rather lost when playing against good teams. His game-ending safety against Wisconsin summed up the season so far for Thorson.
BSD: Veteran ball-carrier Justin Jackson has struggled against the two Power Five opponents that the Wildcats have played so far. Against Duke and Wisconsin, he combined for just 43 yards and 16 carries. Was this just a matter of Northwestern playing from behind, or is there something wrong with the running game? How does offensive coordinator Mick McCall plan on getting Jackson going against Penn State?
INU: From what we've heard at press conferences, Justin Jackson picked up a minor injury against Bowling Green. He did not practice before the Wisconsin game and he looked ineffective. Jackson said he was feeling much better on Monday, but we shall see what happens. Backup running backs Jeremy Larkin and John Moten IV have been getting more carries of late, but Northwestern definitely needs its star back to be healthy against Penn State.
BSD: Thorson has done a good job of spreading the ball around after the departure of Austin Carr, as four Wildcats have more than three catches per game this season. Is there one receiver who has separated himself from the pack so far?
INU: Bennett Skowronek has been Northwestern's biggest downfield threat whenever Thorson has the time to throw to him. He's caught 17 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns, but I'm not sure what he can do against the Penn State secondary.
BSD: Six of Northwestern's seven leading tacklers are upperclassmen. The seventh is Paddy Fisher, who leads the team with over nine tackles per game as a redshirt freshman. Was this young linebacker supposed to be such a stud? What's allowed him to make such an impact so early in his career?
INU: Paddy Fisher has been great. We were expecting either him or Nathan Fox to become the heir apparent to Anthony Walker Jr., but Fisher has definitely been the guy. Fisher has been all over the field and had his best game of his career against Wisconsin. He wasn't supposed to be a standout process at linebacker, but since Northwestern has been so good at developing linebackers (Brett Walsh, Walker, etc.) we expected a guy to emerge.
BSD: Although the Wildcats came into the Big Ten opener with just four sacks in three games, they took down Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook twice on Saturday. Did Pat Fitzgerald make any adjustments to ramp up the pressure? How does Northwestern plan on taking advantage of a Penn State offensive line that had trouble protecting Trace McSorley against Indiana last weekend?
INU: Northwestern's defensive line finally made a difference against Wisconsin, as the Wildcats had their best defensive game of the season despite losing 33-24. The young but talented defensive line was supposed to be a strength for the Wildcats. Tyler Lancaster, Joe Gaziano, and Sam Miller are all solid players, and they should continue to play well throughout the season. After not generating much pressure against BGSU, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz definitely dialed up more blitzes and creative pressures for Wisconsin. I think the Northwestern pass rush could be certainly be an issue for Penn State, but the banged-up secondary has to defend well enough to make it work.
BSD: The Wildcats are 15-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Northwestern?
INU: I think Northwestern, similarly to last week, can keep the game close in the first half. However, the depth and quality of Penn State will likely prove to be too much for the Wildcats. Saquon Barkley and McSorley can wear down Northwestern just as well as Hornibrook and Jonathan Taylor did last week.
Thanks again to Tristan for taking the time to educate us on the splendor that is Northwestern football. To keep up on Wildcats athletics all year round, be sure to check out Inside NU!